Fish Species

Rainbow and Steelhead Trout are actually the same species, and they are in the same genus as Pacific salmon.  Steelhead trout migrate to the ocean; rainbow trout remain in freshwater for their entire life, either in streams or lakes.

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rainbowRainbow trout spawn in the spring, and many spawn yearly, up to five times. The migratory patterns of rainbow trout vary and appear to be related to whether the population is stream or lake resident. Stream resident rainbow trout tend to remain in the same generally short sections of stream, while lake resident populations migrate to streams to spawn in the spring and then return to the lake within a few weeks. After hatching, steelhead spend one to four years, but usually about two, in freshwater before migrating to the ocean where they are found throughout the North Pacific. The length of time they remain in marine waters ranges from a few months to as much as four years, after which they return to their home streams to spawn.

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Dolly Varden
are found in many rivers and streams throughout the Cook Inlet area. They are closely related to Arctic Char, and in fact, distinguishing
the two species requires counting gill rakers and pyloric caeca.  

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dollyvardenAlthough Dolly Varden generally spawn in the fall, their life history is notoriously variable. For example, Dolly Varden populations can be sea-run (spending time in freshwater and nearshore marine waters) or resident (spending their entire life in freshwater), and within the same population some individuals may be sea-run while others are resident. Among freshwater residents, there are lake, stream, and dwarf forms. Many sea-run Dolly Varden populations in the Cook Inlet area have a life history pattern as follows: in the fall, 600-6,000 eggs are laid in redds, or nests, in streams and covered with gravel; they hatch in the spring and rear in the stream for 2-5 years before migrating to the ocean for the first time. After their first migration to the ocean, Dolly Varden may spend the remainder of their lives overwintering in lakes and migrating between the ocean and fresh water. Dolly Varden that are hatched and reared in a lake system migrate to the ocean to feed and return annually to a lake or river to overwinter. Dolly Varden that hatch in non-lake systems seek out a lake for overwintering. They search for a lake randomly, migrating from system to system until they find a system with a lake. After overwintering in the lake, Dolly Varden may also migrate annually to sea in the spring, and may search for food in other stream systems. When Dolly Varden reach sexual maturity, usually between age 5-9 (or younger for stream resident populations), they migrate directly from their overwintering areas to their home stream to spawn. All forms of Dolly Varden may spawn more than once, although there is generally a high mortality rate after spawning. Their life span can be up to 18 years, but usually it is less than 10 years. In freshwater, Dolly Varden eat unburied salmon eggs and young, insects and crustaceans. While in the ocean, their diet includes a wide variety of small fishes and invertebrates.

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King (Chinook) Salmon
have a bluegray back with silver sides. Small, irregular black spots on back, dorsal fin, and on both lobes of the tail. Black
mouth with black gums at the base of lower jaw.

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kingsalmonChinook (king) salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon species at maturity, frequently exceeding 50 lbs. They return to Cook Inlet area streams from early May through early August. Females lay 3,000-14,000 eggs. After hatching and emerging from the gravel, juvenile Chinook feed on plankton and insects while in freshwater. Most Chinook salmon remain in freshwater for one or two years before their seaward migration, and they spend 3-5 years in the ocean. In the ocean, Chinook feed on herring, pilchard, sandlance, squid and crustaceans as well as other available fish and shellfish. Chinook salmon are distributed widely throughout the Cook Inlet area with particularly large runs to the Kenai and Deshka rivers, and Alexander, Lake and Prairie creeks.

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Sockeye (Red) Salmon
have a dark blue-black back with silver sides and no distinct spots. Sockeye (red) salmon are unique in that after emerging
from the gravel, they usually spend one to two years in lakes as juveniles. Important food sources in lakes include plankton and insects.

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redsalmonSome important lakes in the Cook Inlet area for sockeye rearing are Tustamena Lake and Upper and Lower Kenai Lakes.  After moving to the ocean, sockeye migrate through the Gulf of Alaska and into the North Pacific Ocean, but they do not enter the Bering Sea. However, sockeye stocks from central Alaska (which includes the Cook Inlet area) have been found west of 175°E (west of the Aleutian Islands). Some populations of sockeye, called kokanee, remain in lakes for their entire life cycle. After 2 or 3 years at sea, mature sockeye salmon return to Cook Inlet area streams to spawn in mid June, and runs continue through August.

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Coho (Silver ) Salmon
have a greenish-blue back with silver sides and small black spots on the back, dorsal fin, and on the upper lobe of the tail only.
Black mouth with white gums at the base of teeth on lower jaw.

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cohosalmonCoho (silver) salmon begin entering rivers and streams of the Cook Inlet area in mid-July through late September. Females deposit from 2,400-4,500 eggs in stream gravel. Most coho remain in freshwater until the following spring. During fall and winter, juvenile coho seek out deep pools and side channels in which to overwinter. In Cook Inlet, smolt usually migrate to the ocean from March through June, but in some systems such as the Kenai River and Deep Creek, the smolt migration is protracted, lasting all summer. Coho salmon usually spend just one year at sea, although there is variability.

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Pink (Humpy) Salmon
have large spots on the back and large black oval blotches on both tail lobes.

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Very small scales. Spawning males develop a
pronounced hump once back into the fresh water system.

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Chum (Dog) Salmon are dull gray with yellow-silver sides. No distinct spots.  Large eye pupil. Chum (dog) salmon are found in many systems of the Cook Inlet area.

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humpysalmonThey enter the Cook Inlet area beginning in mid-July, and runs continue through mid-August. On average, females lay 2,000-4,000 eggs.  After hatching in the spring, young chum immediately migrate to the ocean. They form large schools and remain in estuaries and near-shore waters feeding on plankton until fall, when they migrate to the open ocean. After three to six years at sea, chum return to their home streams to spawn.

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For more information or to purchase and print sport-fishing licenses and king salmon stamps online Division of Sport Fish website.